Bright Lights Film Journal

Daniel Day Lewis… the New Dark God of Actors

If you’re as hung up on the mythic greatness of THERE WILL BE BLOOD as I am (if you haven’t seen it, may I advise you do so?) then you’re probably thinking about revisiting his earlier films. The first stop would be GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002), the Martin Scorsese-directed epic in which Lewis plays Bill the Butcher, the obvious forerunner to his Dunkleschlechte Amerikanischer Vater in BLOOD.

With GANGS, Lewis set a very high bar for playing deeply, resonantly mythic, believably larger-than-life characters. No actor since Brando in STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE had so powerfully mixed charisma and humor with ambivalence and evil. The sad question is: whose fault is it there aren’t more characters like this around? Is it the writers, or the squeamish stars?

I tried to watch GANGS last night, and couldn’t get very deep; it kind of sucks. I blame the decision to cast Leonardo DiCaprio as the reason. I’m sure Leo’s participation got the funds flowing, but it also created the need to appeal to as wide a global demographic as possible (in order to recoup the film’s astronomical budget). The dull “nice guy seeking revenge” plot and the pointless love interest with Cameron Diaz are the result–no doubt–of endless rewrites and compromises with the suits. It’s sad to contemplate Marty–who once created new standards for cinematic greatness with tough little films about New York–merely striving to carry an “epic” to a coherent conclusion.

Working with a major star is clearly not a good idea: Leo can’t have his image tarnished, and so his character is–like the same one he’d play in THE AVIATOR and THE DEPARTED–completely stainless. Even when doused in blood or punching someone’s teeth clean out, Leo has to feign being “tortured” by the moral conundrum he’s in. And Marty doesn’t let a cliche go unturned to prove–as if in some juvenile court–that Leo’s character is a “good boy.” When Leo and his pal run into a burning building to loot some jewelry, we see that Leo chooses to save his friend rather than grab a big bundle of watches and necklaces. It’s the sort of detail that’s utterly superfluous except as a balm to the ulcers of Leo’s handlers who desperately don’t want their boy to ever fall into a character that’s morally complex. (I’m no Leo hater; I think he’s a very good actor, but lately he’s just Tom Cruise with a better knack for accents.)

Granted, certain scenes in GANGS are superb: generally the ones that feature Lewis instead of Leo, such as the opening fight. As for the rest, it’s lively but it’s also quite phony. Everyone is either smudged with city grit to the point of OLIVER-hood, or else shiny clean, as if they’ve just stepped out of the Halloween store. There’s so much to see and do it’s like you’re weaving your way through some disorganized open casting call, looking vainly for the exit.

Despite all that, every second Daniel Day Lewis is on screen is a revelation. He takes the force and venom of RAGING BULL and doubles the dose. Tall, feral, supremely confident and menacing, he’s the charismatic presence of the movie. The only other actor who seems to have figured out how to enjoy himself in this chaotic faux-squalor is Jim Broadbent as a corrupt politician. His scenes with Lewis at Tammany Hall have a grounding magnetism that helps anchor the rest of the film,

So if you want more prime Lewis but can’t abide by the phoniness of Leo, may I suggest instead going in a completely opposite direction? Check AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993), set approx. 20 years after the events in GANGS (and farther uptown). Lewis is the mirror opposite of his BLOOD and GANGS characters as nice guy lawyer Newland Archer, who gives up crazy love for a place at the trough of eternal wealth. Don’t judge him; you’ll probably do the same some day if you haven’t already, you morally complex rat bastard!

Go here to read more on the greatness of the Lewis Persona. And here for more on the lameness of the lately Leo persona.